Over the last couple of weeks the French papers have carried pictures of a dark-haired woman in large glasses whose face is etched with unimaginable pain. She is Ruth Halimi, the mother of Ilan Halimi, a young Parisien mobile telephone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, allegedly by a group of youngsters who called themselves the "Barbarians".
The details emerging from the trial of those accused of Ilan Halimi's murder are truly horrific and should bring tears to the most hard-hearted or tragedy inured. The story has been in some British papers, but bears repeating, in my view, not least because it reminds us of the wide and varied forms man's inhumanity to fellow man can take. Ilan Halimi, aged 23, was lured into a honey trap by a pretty girl acting on the instructions of the gang leader, the court heard. Having persuaded the young man to meet her, Ilan Halimi was then pounced on by the gang. He was, we learned, stripped naked and kept prisoner for 24 days during which his head apart from his nose was almost entirely covered in tape and he was stabbed, prodded, burned with cigarettes and beaten. A ransom was demanded of his family. At the end of his three week and three day ordeal he was dumped naked near a railroad in a Paris suburb; one ear and a toe had been severed and he had been covered with an inflammable liquid or acid causing burns to 80% of his body. He died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. Ilan Halimi was Jewish and apparently snatched because the head of the gang - a Muslim - believed Jews to be rich and instilled with a sense of social solidarity meaning they would be more likely to come up with the demanded six-figure ransom. Arguments, on which I make no comment, continue over whether the murder was motivated by anti-Semitism or money.
What is as deeply troubling as the above details is that there are 27 young people, two of them minors at the time of the murder, in the dock. Yes, 27 - TWENTY SEVEN - people. That's 27 people accused of being involved or having knowledge of what was happening to Ilan Halimi while it was happening not one of whom thought to inform the police or raise the alarm even anonymously.
In 20 years as a foreign correspondent I have witnessed some very gruesome events at first hand. The Balkan wars supplied enough material for a lifetime of horror movies, among them a Croatian village where dozens of mainly elderly residents had been massacred by a vaguely paramilitary group some using chainsaws to cut them in half (better not to dwell too much on the premeditation involved or the physical consequences). There was the Bosnian village where women and children and old men had been herded into the basement of a house, covered in petrol and burned alive their charred skeletons captured in the throes of an agonising death. There were first hand accounts of the Omarska prison camp and Srebrenica, arguably the most shameful act of negligence in post Second World War European history. In another hemisphere there were children in Sierra Leone who had had their ears and noses and limbs chopped off by machete wielding savages who had demanded: "long sleeve or short sleeve" before amputating their arms or hands.
But it is a long time since I have seen or heard anything to make me feel so helplessly angry and cry such bitter, bitter tears as the story of Ilan Halimi. I do not know how Ruth Halimi can bear the grief so profoundly written on her it is almost tangible. She has suffered the death of her beloved son and last week she must have suffered his death a thousand times over as the man accused of his murder swaggered and shouted his defiance and showed not the slightest hint of remorse raining blows upon the mother as he was accused of doing to the son. As Ruth Halimi contained herself, rocking back and forth in her seat in court, the so-called chief barbarian grinned and joked.
I only wish I had something profound and redeeming to say about all this, but I haven't. As a mother and a human being I just feel for Ruth Halimi.
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